off-camera wireless TTL flash setup for a portrait of a show dog
A friend of mine, Carol Beuchat, is a photographer who specializes in dog portraits and dog shows. She was at the recent Westminster Dog Show, and needed to photograph this beautiful whippet, Chanel, for a magazine cover. Since it was in Manhattan and it was ice cold freezing outside, we had to photograph the dog indoors. The hotel lobby where the attendees to the dog show stayed would have to be the setting. And would have to make a great setting.
The one foyer of the hotel had these gleaming metal elevator doors. Carol carefully figured out the image’s background in relation to where she would let the dog’s handler hold the dog .. and positioned herself there with a long lens. (Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS )
Since the dog would easily become bored, we had to figure out the exact place we wanted the dog to be, and also figure out the lighting well ahead of time. Once we were ready, the Chanel’s handler would bring her down, and position her. A few frames … and Carol would have the shot.
We had to be meticulous about the setting-up – and still be very flexible during the actual shoot …
When I arrived in the hotel lobby before the shoot, Carol was already busy photographing a chair pillow in various spots in the hotel lobby. The pillow was the stand-in for the dog while figuring out the lighting. Doing various test shots of the pillow, we looked at the background and the lighting on the pillow (standing in for the subject). The background had to be simple and uncluttered … and add to the image. The metal door really does help give a regal look to the final image.
the initial lighting setup
I initially set up three speedlights to light up the subject.
Carol had two Canon 580EX II speedlights (B&H) there, and I had brought my Nikon SB-900 speedlights (B&H). She could control the two Canon speedlights with a Canon ST-E2 wireless TTL controller (B&H). I put one Nikon SB-900 in SU-4 mode, which would allow the speedlight to be optically triggered by ANY other flash such as the Canon speedlights. I set the SB-900 in manual mode, and used it to light the background. I used a clamp to fix it onto the one railing in the background, and used the black foamie thing to flag it from causing lens flare.
My wife, Sara, who had accompanied me, helped by holding a speedlight and reflector. The two Canon speedlights would then be held on either side of the subject / pillow, bounced into a reflector that Sara and I each would hold. We held the reflectors about 6 – 8 feet from the subject / pillow. The reflector would create a large soft light source then. The speedlighs would be in TTL mode, and triggered with the ST-E2. The ST-E2 was set to Ratio .. and that would allow Carol to change the ratio of light from the flashguns on either side of the subject / pillow / whippet.
The test shots looked good, but we couldn’t get an angle giving us a clean background. So we had to change position.
the final lighting setup
Carol found her angle along the one row of elevator doors opening up. That single elevator door there at 90 degrees to the others, would be the background you now see in the final shot at the top. But because the dog would now be standing about 4 feet from the elevator doors, there was no room to hold the second speedlight + reflector. So I stood on the left-hand side of the dog, about 6 – 8 feet away .. and bounced a single speedlight into it. By angling the reflector during the test shots, we got the light to fall evenly on the subject / pillow … and enough light would reflect off the wall and elevator doors opposite me, to give fill light. Perfect!
The light in the background was now the other Canon speedlight, also set to TTL mode. The ST-E2 on Carol’s Canon 5D mk2, would then be able to control the ratio of light falling on the subject / pillow / dog .. and the light bounced into the ceiling in the background, lighting the background.
And there you have it .. the dog handler stepped in with the dog, and Carol very quickly got the shots she needed.
Chanel not only won Best of Breed in whippets, she won the Hound Group 1 (i.e. First Place in all Hounds). For a dog barely 2 years old, this is huge. So, she’s been catapulted in one show into stardom, and Carol has real hope that the cover pic of her might become her “signature” photo and will be reproduced many times in the dog press and history book.
14 Comments, Add Your Own
1Dave Eisenberg says
I have a small problem with your description: Using the ST-E2 in TTL mode will force the slaves to fire a pre-flash. This will make your optically triggered SB-900 fire too early.
I had the same concern as Dave above. Do you have a way to work around the optical slave/TTL pre-flash problem? I have only had success using optical slaves with my primary flash(es) in manual mode…
3Neil vN says
Hi there Dave and David .. a team!
With this set-up, the SB-900 as an SU-4 slave is actually triggered at the correct time (ie, when the main flash burst goes off), and not triggered by the pre-flash sequence. Surprisingly.
I suspect this is because the pre-flash sequence and communication sequence is near-infra-red due to the strong red gel over the front of the ST-E2.
In other words … it does actually work as described!
Strangely enough though, I just double-checked this now to confirm for myself that I wasn’t delusional during the shoot … but even with a 580EX as the master (ie, with a visible preflash sequence), the SB-900 was triggered at the correct moment. THIS I can’t explain though, and it goes against the common wisdom of how an optically slaved flash is triggered too early. Somehow it even works this way.
4Paul Brown says
Thats a beautiful photo of Chanel. We saw her at Del Mar, CA this weekend where she won Best in Show on Saturday. (My whole family shows dogs).
Carol’s website says she resides in Southern California, so I must have seen her at some shows around here. Does she have short, lightish-brown hair? I’d love to say hi, and compliment her.
Thanks for your website Neil. I’ve been an avid reader for about a year and have learned alot!
5Kathy Marciante Photograhy says
Stunning photo!! The elegant gold background is perfect to set off Chanel’s gorgeous coloring. The collaboration of lighiting is amazing!
I really like how you found the doors for that shot; very adaptive! Would it have been considered ‘cheating’ to have Photoshopped a bit more of a catchlight in Chanel’s left eye?
Under these kind of images should we under expose the ambient light (background) to emphasize the subject’s flash illumination?
8Neil vN says
Rafiyub … that is the general way it is done when flash is the main source of light.
The converse is where the flash only acts as fill flash.
(I moved the rest of your comment to the actual article on the TT1 and TT5, where it would be more relevant.)
Can you tell me what the difference between SU-4(Auto) mode is and SU-4(Manual) mode is. I am embarrassed to admit that even after reading the SB900 manual I still don’t understand it.
Here is what it states:
In A mode the remote flash units start and stop firing in sync with the master flash unit.
In M mode the remote flash units only start firing in sync with the master flash unit.
I guess I am unsure as to what the stop/start is..
10Neil vN says
Brian … their description is just a obfuscation of the simple fact that:
A = Automatic (and will be controlled by the duration of the main flash), and
M = Manual, and as such the slave flash will only be triggered. Not controlled.
In other words, A is automatic and M is manual flash.
In the Carol B’s image posted here, was the image replaced with one having here name on the image? Name|Sign|Mark on an image does not bother me, but silent replacement does slightly.
Or, perhaps I did not pay attention to the legs, only the torso & the background?.
12Neil vN says
Parv, I did replace the image with another version of the same image which is more heavily watermarked.
The original would’ve been too easy to edit.
It’s a necessity.
13Tim Young says
thanks for the outstanding website. I just cannot seem to get my mixed brand flashes firing together. I am triggering two 580 II’s and an SB900 with an ST-E2, however, even without TTL and the SB900 in Manual slave, they won’t fire together. The SB900 fires but the 580’s won’t. Any suggestions/help would be most appreciated.
14Neil vN says